Tim Tuttle
Thursday January 27th, 2011

Jimmie Johnson struggled early in his Sprint Cup career at Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen International, the series' two road courses. He's worked hard at getting better, to the extent of putting in extra seat time by driving in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It paid off with Johnson's victory at Infineon last season, his first on a road course.

Mission accomplished, right? No need to keep running the 24-Hour, a commitment that Johnson described last November as something "that's going to eat into my down time" in the short offseason.

Wrong.

Johnson will make his seventh start on the road course at Daytona on Saturday. It will be his fourth straight year with Bob Stallings' Gainsco Daytona Prototype team. Johnson will co-drive with Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, former Grand-Am Series champions who have never won at Daytona.

If the Cup champion of five straight seasons is honing his skills in the 24 Hour, where Johnson likely will spend more time on a road course than the two Cup races in 2011 combined, wouldn't it be beneficial for other Cup drivers, too?

You can understand Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart passing on it. They've won plenty of Cup road races, nine for Gordon, seven for Stewart. Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin -- the last time in 1997 -- have road course victories, too, but they could probably use the practice. With the exception of Juan Pablo Montoya, an expert road racer who is driving at Daytona this weekend for Cup boss Chip Ganassi's Grand-Am team, the rest of the Cup regulars are winless on road courses.

Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton could all argue they made the Chase last year and they don't need to up their road course game. But they're standing still on developing their road racing skills as Johnson pushes forward.

Jamie McMurray, 14th in points last season, will also be in the 24-Hour, driving for Ganassi. He was 15th at Infineon and sixth at Watkins Glen in 2010. McMurray will gain on the competition from the experience. Technique and practice are important elements of road racing, no matter what course or type of car.

Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and David Reutimann were Chase contenders, finished in the top 20 in points last year. They'd have been smart to line up a 24 Hour ride and try to gain some points next season. Anybody outside of the top 20, a group that included Dale Earnhardt Jr. last season, needs to find a way to score more points at every track. Road racing is a good place to try to move up.

A.J. Allmendinger, 19th in points last year, comes from a road racing background, but he's driving at Daytona for Mike Shank Racing in a Daytona Prototype. It's a chance to re-sharpen his road course talent.

The Chase doesn't have any road races, but making it does. And starting this season, the 11th- and 12th-place qualifiers for the Chase will be based on wins as long as they're in the top 20. Some might classify that as the Jamie McMurray or Kyle Busch rule, but it adds the possibility one win could take a driver into the Chase.

Did running sports cars really help Johnson that much? Chad Knaus, his crew chief, says it did.

"Jimmie has put a lot of effort into upping his road course racing capabilities and he's done a great job," Knaus said at Infineon last year. "Working with the Gainsco guys has helped him tremendously."

Johnson takes the 24 Hour seriously. He spent two days testing at Daytona in early January.

"The team made a big effort to get me more seat time in general, if you go back to Watkins Glen [where Johnson also drove in a 6-hour] race, and what they have done here," Johnson said. "With three drivers, you can't have anyone needing seat time come race weekend needing to find pace."

Gurney says Johnson is capable of making a valuable contribution in the 24 Hour.

"He gets the job done in the car," Gurney said. "He takes very little time to get up to speed. He seems good in all conditions, including the rain. Great communicator and it's been pretty obvious to us why he wins so much. We think he can do it in our team as well."

Johnson isn't there just for training. He's always made it clear he's racing to win. Johnson would become the third driver to win the Daytona 500 and the 24-Hour, joining A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.

"That would be something special," Johnson said. "I certainly hope to make it three drivers who have won the 500 and have gone on to win the Rolex 24. We have come awfully close."

Johnson finished second in the 24-Hour in 2005 and 2008.

McMurray also is in position to become the third driver to win the Daytona 500 and the 24-Hour. He's co-driving with IndyCar stars Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon and Montoya.

"I'm with a really good team and I'm excited about the race," McMurray said. "But I don't think about that stuff [historical impact] until my career is over."

The Daytona 24-Hour is a world-class sports car race and the four full-time Cup drivers in it -- Johnson, McMurray, Allmendinger and Montoya -- are great representatives for NASCAR. But there should be more. It's an opportunity missed for the rest.

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